Technological Enchantments and the End of Modernity

Dissatisfied with existing theories of secularization, Charles Taylor proposed his own account in his much-discussed 2007 book, A Secular Age. Taylor argued that traditional secularization stories were at best inadequate. They were in adequate because they were what Taylor called “subtraction stories.” According to such stories, secularization is what you get when belief in God goes away or when the Church loses its cultural power or when religious language is excised from the public square, etc. Taylor did not believe that secular society is simply what you have left when you slough off religious belief and institutions. Rather, he argued for the rise of something novel, exclusive humanism, which could fill the role that religious experience once served to provide “fullness” to people’s lives. Additionally, he argued that secularism as he understood it was not something that characterized only the unbelievers in a society. It was also the context for and conditions of belief and thus no one escaped its consequences.

I find Taylor’s work compelling and instructive, however, I bring it up only to make use of a small part of his multi-faceted and nuanced argument: his understanding of disenchantment.

The enchanted world was one of the features of pre-modern society which had to be overcome in order for a secular world, in Taylor’s sense, to emerge. The enchanted world as he describes it yields a particular experience of the self, what Taylor calls the “porous self” which later gives way to the modern “buffered self.”

Before moving on to explain what Taylor means by the porous self, I think it is useful to emphasize that Taylor is not after a theory of the self that pre-modern people may or not have held. Rather, he is after something more subjective, the background of lived experience or what was naively taken for granted. Taylor describes what he trying to get at as “the construal we just live in, without ever being aware of it as a construal, or–for the most of us–without ever even formulating it.”

This is a useful way of approaching these matters because rarely do we carry around with us a fully developed theory we could articulate to explain our beliefs and actions. Much of what we say and do arises from a tacit understanding of the world and our place in it, an understanding we might be hard pressed to put into words.

This is helpful because when I talk about technological re-enchantment, I don’t mean to suggest that anyone today would claim that there are spirits in the iPhone like a medieval peasant might have believed there were dryads in the forest. Nonetheless, we may experience our technology in a way that is functionally similar or analogous to the premodern experience of enchantment. And we may do so naively, that is without reflection and in a taken for granted manner.

Taylor’s discussion of enchantment unfolds as a theory of the self, and his understanding enchantment begins with the question of meaning. In a our modern disenchanted world, meaning arises only from mind, and the human mind is the only kind of mind there is. Nothing external to the human mind bears any meaning in itself. Moreover, there are no non-human agents in the world, either of matter or spirit.

By contrast, things (and spirits) in the enchanted world have the “power of exogenously inducing or imposing meaning,” a meaning that is independent of the perceiver. A meaning that someone may be forced to reckon with whether they would like to or not. Additionally, in the enchanted world objects can have a causal power. The “charged” objects, Taylor explains, “have what we usually call ‘magic’ powers.” Crucially, this power may be either benevolent or malevolent. The objects in question may bring blessing or trouble, cure or disease, rescue or danger.

“Thus in the enchanted world,” Taylor concludes, “charged things can impose meanings, and bring about physical outcomes proportionate to their meanings.” He calls these “influence” and ” causal power,” respectively.

The corresponding experience of the self that arises from this state of affairs is key for my purposes. Boundaries in the enchanted world are decidedly fuzzy. Taylor writes that the enchanted world “shows a perplexing absence of certain boundaries which seem to us essential.” In particular, “the boundary between mind and world is porous.” The porous self that corresponds to an enchanted world is “vulnerable, to spirits, demons, cosmic forces. And along with this go certain fears which can grip it in certain circumstances.”

The buffered self characteristic of the disenchanted world is, by contrast, “invulnerable” and “master of the meanings of things for it.” It is also immune to the fears that may grip the porous self. It is sealed off from the world, its boundaries are not at all fuzzy, meaning resides neatly within its own mind, it occupies a world of inert matter. It is autonomous and self-possessed. It is in other words, a thoroughly modern individual.

It would be fair to ask at this point, what any of this has to do with technology. My working hypothesis is something along these lines: contemporary technologies have taken on attributes that render their presence in our lived understanding of the world analogous to that of the “charged” objects of the enchanted world Taylor describes.

Two clarifications. First, I don’t mean to suggest that contemporary technology is in any literal sense magical. I am no more committed to that conclusion than a contemporary historian is committed to attributing real power to medieval relics when she describes them as enchanted.

Secondly, I don’t have in mind every kind of contemporary technology. Chiefly, I have in view technologies and objects that appear to be animated (as I’ve described elsewhere), and also processes, real or rhetorical, such as AI, automation, algorithms, and Big Data, which constitute something like an immaterial field of often inscrutable forces within which we conduct our lives.

In this technologically enchanted world we inhabit, then, we encounter objects and forces that, to borrow Taylor’s terminology, both influence us and exert causal power over our affairs. Some of these objects and forces appear also to have an agency independent of any human actor. I want to reiterate again that I am not talking about what some, including myself, would want to argue is actually the case: that technology is never wholly independent of human agency. Rather, like Taylor, I’m after what our unreflective experience of the world feels like.

Our technologically enchanted objects confront us with meaning that imposes itself on us and with which we must reckon. We turn to our technologies for help and invest our hope in their power. We also fear our technologies and see them as the cause of our troubles. The technological forces we encounter are sometimes benevolent but just as often malevolent forces undermining our efforts and derailing our projects.

It is not only that technological objects have the potential to empower us and sometimes even fill us with wonder. It is also that we experience these objects and forces as important determiners of our weal and woe and that they act upon us independently of our control and without our understanding. We are, in other words, vulnerable, and our autonomy is compromised by the lines of technologically distributed agency that intersect our will and desires.

This means, then, that the experience of the self that emerges out of this technologically enchanted milieu more resembles the porous self of the previously enchanted world than the buffered self that corresponded to disenchanted modernity. This is the key point at the end of this line of thought: a technologically enchanted world is inhospitable to the characteristically modern self. Postmodernity, then, at least the postmodern experience of the self, may be understood as an effect of our technological milieu.

“We are as gods,” Stewart Brand famously declared, “and might as well get good at it.” I suspect, though, that while the technologically enchanted world may tempt us with that possibility, most will experience it in a decidedly more creaturely and thus precarious mode. And not unlike the previous age of enchantment, our age will yield its own forms of serfdom, its own clerical class whose esoteric knowledge we turn to navigate the promise and perils of enchantment, and its own eschatological hope.


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One thought on “Technological Enchantments and the End of Modernity

  1. interesting. thanks for sharing your stimulating ideas. i almost wrote a longer letter to you about your post on kids and technology but one of my inner critics intervened :)

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